Political Focus, with Bill Jacobs

HEALTH Secretary Frank Dobson has a lot to answer for today - costing the Labour Party one million quid for a start.

Not to mention tarring the government with the tag of sleaze which dogged the previous Tory administration to its dying gasp on May 1.

He also managed to land his Minister of State, Tessa Jowell, in the mire by making her announce the U-turn on Formula One and tobacco sponsorship rather than himself.

The original problem comes from Mr Dobson's speech to the Royal College of Nursing on May 19. There he made a strong and highly effective attack on tobacco advertising.

All well and good as banning tobacco advertising was a key pledge in Labour General Election manifesto.

But he also went on to cover the spending of cash by tobacco companies on sport, saying the legislation would cover sponsorship.

In witty and headline-catching style he said: "We recognise that some sports are heavily dependent on tobacco sponsorship. We do not wish to harm these sports.

"We will therefore give them time and help to reduce their dependency on tobacco and replace it with sponsorship from more benign sources."

But this promise was not in the manifesto.

Mr Dobson had added this new pledge on the hoof. Downing Street was horrified and immediately tried to water down the commitment.

Indeed, reports of his speech in the papers at the time make specific reference to motor racing but the extract being hawked round now by his press office makes no mention of Grand Prix racing.

And one senior MP who helped develop Labour's policy on tobacco sponsorship before the election was amazed and alarmed by this extension of the manifesto pledge to cover sports sponsorship by tobacco firms.

He immediately flagged up the question of what would happen to Formula One - a major employer and technological flagship for Britain.

But as one Labour insider put it: "Just after the election, ministers were keen to make new announcements and, sadly, in some cases they went too far."

If Mr Dobson had stuck the manifesto and not gone hunting after the extra headline, the whole issue of the U-turn, Mrs Jowell's husband's links with the Benetton team and Mr Ecclestone's huge gift to Labour would never have arisen.

Had he also had the guts to do the climbdown on the issue himself, the sleaze scandal now engulfing Downing Street might well never have got going. But he got Mrs Jowell to do it instead to spare his blushes and this brought up the question of her husband David Mills's links with Benetton through his work as a lawyer. From then on, the revelations came out in a serious of embarrassing drips, getting worse by the day.

The news first that Mr Ecclestone had held a key meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, then that he had given Labour £1 million, and then that the party had been forced by sleazebuster Sir Patrick Neill to give it back has been a growing public relations disaster for the Government. It has ensured that New Labour's sanctimonious tone on this matter has backfired on it with a vengeance.

Now Mr Blair is no longer whiter than white and whether the U-turn was justified or not and whether Mr Ecclestone's donation had any influence or not are now irrelevant.

The mud has stuck and will probably never be cleaned off even Teflon Tony.

Mr Dobson has in general done a better job than most expected as Health Secretary.

He was even praised by government business managers by the rumbustious way he boost Labour MPs morale at Health Questions on Tuesday before Mrs Jowell came to the Despatch Box, easing her task considerably.

But the whole affair has revealed his known weaknesses of poor judgement, eagerness to grab a headline, and desire to duck, dive and dodge under fire.

His card has clearly been marked in Downing Street and Blair insiders have little doubt that Mr Dobson has leap-frogged other Cabinet colleagues in the queue for the sack in next year's Government reshuffle.

To avoid that fate, he will have to perform very well indeed between now and then or his future in the government fast lane will have gone up in smoke.

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.